"I will not pay for employees to train while I am paying them to work," said the CEO of a company. It reminds me of the CFO that told the CEO, "If we train our people, they will leave for a better job." The CEO replied, "What if we don't train them, and they stay?" This polarized thinking forms the foundation for organizations' challenges during the Great Resignation.
The idea that the job (with a paycheck) alone will retain employees is unfortunate. The concept of work is evolving as the generations change. Companies must now compete with the Gig Economy and other organizations for the same talent. We have seen nothing like this in the history of the modern workplace.
I utilize the talent retention (sticky) quadrant to assess employee engagement in organizations. The level of appreciation and importance one feels and how challenged an employee is reflects the predictability of staying with an organization. Employees not engaged at work will not last very long—employees who do not feel challenged become bored and look for other ways to earn a living. The idea is that transactional management (pay for work) alone is not enough to retain workers.
Gig workers love the idea that they can work a flexible schedule without the threat of the same horrible boss in a traditional work setting. Internet Influencers made more money than CEOs in 2021. This reality portends a far more significant challenge for organizations moving forward. Sadly, many CEOs are ignorant (don't know any better) or intentionally avoid changing the workplace. Why? Is it traditional inertia and status quo bias? How can such intelligent and successful people be so disconnected from reality?
It is time to accept that organizations must make a full-time job attractive to individuals who have left for the freedom of the gig economy or other opportunities. Like the prodigal son, we must be willing to welcome them back without judgment. Two factors are potent attractants for the modern workplace. First, good supervision that teaches and challenges employees is critical. Second, a purpose beyond work engages employees to look beyond what might be considered just a job.
Let's examine these two keys for winning talent in isolation. Supervisors are the face of management for employees. Myopic CEOs fail to understand their lack of importance in employees' eyes. Servant CEOs know that the front-line supervisor is critical for retaining talent. We cannot overstate the bond between a good employee and her boss. "We will walk through fire for a good boss," said an attendee in one of my supervisor training courses. Yet, most companies do not provide the proper skills to lead a multigenerational workforce. These skills are essential to keeping top talent.
Great supervisors see themselves as mentors and coaches who form real bonds with employees. Today's entry-level workers may not have had a robust role model in their lives, and teaching supervisors to fill this role is essential. Just as successful coaches in youth sports, employees desire an excellent boss to challenge and hold them accountable. Accountability without blame is a rare commodity in the workplace. I teach leaders that trust is like a fragile egg. Once you break your employees' faith, you may never get it back. Sadly, many leaders (including CEOs) do not effectively plan and deliver feedback.
Secondly, organizations must have a purpose other than work. Your purpose is the soul of the business. We need a sense of belonging to something that makes us better as humans. Herman Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs calls this self-actualization. We need fulfillment at work. Let's face it; placing frozen chicken tenders in a cardboard box will not achieve satisfaction at work.
Working with CEOs to find an organizational purpose is precious work. Employees will immediately detect the fraud if you attempt to veneer a higher purpose. A higher purpose must represent the passion of the organization's leaders to attract people looking for higher meaning. I served a Dallas-based company that manufactures electronic equipment. Their goal is to provide clean drinking water for every human in a poor African country by 2025. While I am sure there are tedious jobs in their factories, employees get an opportunity to go and live this purpose.
Do you believe this type of purpose is too lofty and beyond your means as an organization? My experience finds that the scope of a particular purpose is far less important than the passion for a purpose. Dedication to a small purpose is more effective than a tepid connection to a larger purpose.
I am fortunate to work with several exceptional non-profit CEOs. Non-profits, by nature, have a purpose as the heart of the organization. This sector is a beautiful example of a purpose-driven business. Yes, they must have revenue and control costs. However, they do not achieve this at the expense of the purpose for which they exist. These CEOs understand the robust coexistence of a higher purpose and financial responsibility.
Let's summarize. Two keys to winning the war for talent are skilled supervisors and a purpose beyond the work. Millennials and the emerging Generation Z worker are a clear and present danger for some organizations and opportunities for others. A little boy told the wise monk that earth is so sharp and painful. It hurts (my feet) to walk on this earth. The monk asked the boy what he suggested to make walking on this earth more comfortable. The boy indicated that if the planet became covered in leather, his feet would no longer hurt as he walked. Since you cannot cover the earth in leather, why not protect your feet in leather? You can complain about today's workforce, or you can choose to work on what you can control.